We’ve Got Issues: Transit and New York’s Race for Governor

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Office of the Governor

The governor during a recent visit to the Gateway tunnel.

This is one in a series of articles looking at the policy positions of the men and woman running to be governor of New York State.

We’re just a few weeks away from the New York State Election, where five candidates will be on the ballot vying for the governorship. They are current governor and seven-year incumbent Andrew Cuomo, Republican Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, former mayor of Syracuse Stephanie Miner, the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins and Libertarian candidate Larry Sharpe.

As was the case in the run-up to September’s Primary, transportation and the state’s aging infrastructure have been focal points of political debate in recent months—specifically how the next governor will help turn around the struggling MTA, which is in a state of crisis in terms of both its finances and service performance.

An audit released earlier this month by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli declared that the MTA is facing “its greatest challenges in decades,” including a projected $262 million operating budget gap by 2020, and deteriorating service on its subways, buses and commuter rails.

“There’s no doubt, from our perspective, that the elephant in the room is the New York City subway,” in the governor’s race, says Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future.

Below, City Limits takes a look at where each candidate for governor stands on major transportation and infrastructure issues.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (Democrat)

During his seven years in office, Cuomo’s led the charge on a number of large-scale transit infrastructure projects, including replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge, building a new train hall for Penn Station, overhauls of both LaGuardia and JFK airports as well as major reconstruction projects at airports in Syracuse, Rochester and Albany.

“I am the most aggressive governor, when it comes to building, in the country,” the governor declared during a debate against Molinaro which aired on CBS Tuesday.

“There’s no doubt that there are successes there,” Dvorkin agrees. “This is a governor who’s actually placed a lot of emphasis … on his record on infrastructure and he deserves credit for that.”

But Cuomo’s leadership when it comes to MTA, and specifically the subways, has been less boast-worthy, experts say. It’s been more than a year since he declared a subway state of emergency and since the MTA launched its more than $800 million Subway Action Plan, and while officials say the system is “stabilizing,” straphangers have yet to see a real difference in everyday service.

“It’s hard to discern any real improvement,” says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who specializes in transportation issues and fiscal policy. The work done so far under the Subway Action Plan has been largely basic repairs and system maintenance, she adds.

“It’s doing what they should have been doing all along,” she says. “It’s hard to give him a lot of credit for that.”

Any real transformation for the city’s transit system most likely lies in New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s multi-million dollar “Fast Forward” plan, though how to pay for the overhaul remains up in the air.

Earlier this month, Cuomo made perhaps his strongest endorsement yet for congestion pricing, something transit advocates have been strongly pushing for. Cuomo called the idea—which would charge drivers a fee to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan —the “only option” for funding the subway’s fixes.

“Like the last time around, the proof will be in his actual effort to see it through,” if re-elected, says Eric McClure, head of the transit-focused political action committee StreetsPAC, referring to the last state budget, which failed to include a comprehensive congestion pricing plan (though it did institute a surcharge for taxis and for-hire vehicles.)

Passing a more robust option will likely not happen until the next round of state budget negotiations this spring.

“We’ll see how [willing] he is to twist arms and knock heads to actually get a real congestion pricing plan in,” McClure says.

Still, experts say congestion pricing is only one revenue source, and one that will only provide but a portion of the money the MTA needs to fully modernize the ailing subway system.

“I would only say, in Cuomo’s defense, that the problem was building up over decades,” says Gelinas, pointing to a failure on the part of past administrations to adequately invest in transit, despite the city’s population boom.

But the governor is still responsible for the current state of the MTA, according to Dvorkin.

“For two terms there’s been an opportunity to make the critical investments needed to keep the system healthy and the city thriving,” he says. “It happened on his watch, and it happened on the system that he controls.”

Marc Molinaro (Republican)

A longtime Dutchess County politician, Molinaro released a detailed, 30-page plan in August for how he would transform the MTA if elected. In it, he utilizes a tactic similar to the one Cuomo’s Primary Election challenger Cynthia Nixon used this summer: presenting the dismal condition of the transit system as proof the incumbent doesn’t deserve another term.

“The governor’s abandoned responsibility for the MTA,” Molinaro jabbed during the October 23rd gubernatorial debate, where he described the transportation authority as being in a “death spiral.”

The fact that the Republican candidate, who hails from outside New York City, has made the subways such a focal point of his campaign is telling of just how vulnerable Cuomo is on the issue, according to Gelinas.

“I can’t really remember the last time that a person running for state office on the Republican side was really running very heavily on the transit system, so it speaks to really the weakness that Cuomo has,” she says.

In his proposal, Molinaro specifically takes aim at Cuomo’s “misplaced priorities, poor management, and a lack of foresight,” in overseeing the subways. If elected, he says he would invest in making immediate repairs and doing preventative work, accusing the governor of neglecting basic subway maintenance in favor of expensive “vanity projects.”

Molinaro supports New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan to overhaul the city’s transit systems, and his platform adopts many of Byford’s same priorities: modernizing the subway’s signal network, re-working bus routes and increasing accessibility for commuters with disabilities. He also wants to adopt the Regional Plan Association’s suggestion to create a new public entity that would oversee reconstruction of the subway.

The other main pledge of his platform is to reign in the MTA’s spending, including its bloated construction costs, which Molinaro calls “anomalous in their excessiveness.” He also wants to cut spending by negotiating labor contracts “to eliminate unnecessary work rules and staffing” and establish “reasonable” parameters for overtime pay—proposals that have earned him the ire of labor groups like the state’s AFL-CIO and TWU Local 100, which called Molinaro’s MTA plan “a non-starter.”

“There’s a reason that the TWU lines up to defend and support governor Cuomo at every turn, and that’s probably because the governor has not really squeezed them in negotiations,” says McClure.

During Tuesday’s debate, CBS moderator Marcia Kramer questioned Cuomo about his apparently cozy relationship with the transit unions and inflated MTA construction costs, including the large number of workers assigned to major projects.

“Obviously there’s going to be waste and abuse in these programs, and we can do better,” the governor conceded, but added that he has no problem “angering a union” if it’s necessary to “doing the right thing by the people.” Cuomo dismissed the notion that cutting waste would make a significant dent in the MTA’s budget gap.

Molinaro’s other transit goals include reforming the MTA’s environmental review and procurement processes, increasing competition in the latter in an effort to drive down costs.

Dvorkin says he was “heartened” to see length and detail of the Republican candidate’s transit platform, and that Molinaro’s calls to prioritize basic repairs and maintenance over flashy new infrastructure projects is the right message.

“That’s not sexy, but that’s where the needs are,” he says.

He thinks that while the emphasis Molinaro’s platform places on cost-cutting measures is important, the MTA’s financial needs go far beyond what can be achieved through belt-tightening alone.

“It’s not like we can just cost-cut our way out of this problem,” Dvorkin says.

Stephanie Miner (Independent)

Miner, the former mayor of Syracuse, has also taken aim at Cuomo for his oversight of the MTA, criticizing him for poor subway service, declining ridership and fiscal mismanagement.

“As governor I will put an end to juvenile finger pointing and hold the MTA accountable,” Miner wrote in an essay on the website Medium earlier this month, in which she outlined her transit platform. She pledges to replace all of the MTA board members appointed by Cuomo, including Chairman Joe Lhota—whom she called, “conflicted-tainted,” a jab the criticism he’s received for his ties to NYU Langone Health and Madison Square Garden.

Miner also supports adopting Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan, as well as reforming the MTA’s procurement process and labor rules to cut costs. In her Twitter bio, she refers to herself as an “infrastructure enthusiast,” and has pointed to her own accomplishments to upgrade Syracuse’s aging roads and water infrastructure during her time as mayor.

Howie Hawkins (Green Party)

Hawkins, a longtime activist, unveiled his transit platform last week. In it, he pledges to take a multi-pronged approach to funding the MTA’s needed upgrades. If elected, he says he would launch a $100 billion capital plan to improve commuter rail lines and fix the subway system, which he also wants to expand into neighborhoods that are currently underserved by transit. He would pay for plan through a number of revenue initiatives, including congestion pricing, a “carbon tax” on corporate polluters and additional taxes on the wealthy, according to his platform.

Larry Sharpe (Libertarian)

Sharpe, a businessman, released his 27-page transit platform in August, dubbed “Faster Forward, in which he expresses support for Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan to modernize the subway. He proposes the creation of a new five-member “Project Scope Control Board,” that would oversee MTA projects to keep them on-time and within budget. Sharpe, whose business background is in trucking and distribution, also proposes to raise money for transit fixes by leasing out rail lines and decommissioned subway stations, which he says could be used to haul goods during “reduced capacity hours.” He has also suggested selling the naming rights to MTA’s bridges and tunnels as a revenue source.

Whoever the next governor is, he or she will have a full plate when it comes to transportation, as the city and surrounding areas grapple with climate change and a growing population. Kate Slevin, senior vice president of state programs for the Regional Plan Association, says they’ll be looking for the next administration to tackle not only the subways and congestion pricing, but other urgent transit projects, including the Gateway Program—which would build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River—and fixing overcrowded Penn Station.

“There’s a lot of changes in mobility coming, and how we invest our money and how we ensure that people have really reliable and affordable alternatives to cars moving into the next administration is going to be increasingly important,” she says.

“The state can play an active role in ensuring the transit system is modernized, fixed and that [it] allows the city to grow in a way that is sustainable.”


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One thought on “We’ve Got Issues: Transit and New York’s Race for Governor

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